Eduardo Posadas, 22, and Auner Barrios Vasquez, 21, are both undocumented students, but their paths diverged when they turned 15. Soon after his birthday, Posadas became eligible for a federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which offers benefits for undocumented youth who have pursued an education or served in the military. 

By the time Barrios Vasquez turned 15 just a few months later, Donald Trump was president, and the window for new DACA applications was closing. In the years that followed their 15th birthdays, DACA faced a number of legal challenges that have effectively kept the program alive for anyone who applied before 2017 — while barring almost all new applicants, including Barrios Vasquez.

Today a growing number of students in California’s colleges and universities are ineligible for DACA. An estimated 17,000 people in California don’t qualify because of decisions by the Trump administration and the courts, but many more people — nearly 100,000 Californians — are ineligible for other reasons, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior analyst from the Migration Policy Institute. Namely, the program has restrictions around residency and age. 

The population of people with DACA is getting older and smaller, and there are limits to what schools can do to help those who don’t qualify. As the federal program wanes, California’s colleges and lawmakers are looking to creative — and occasionally controversial — strategies to support undocumented students. 

At each of the University of California campuses, most California State University campuses, and more than half of the state’s 116 community colleges, there’s a center where undocumented students can access help navigating grants, financial aid and legal resources. 

At the Undocumented Community Center at the College of San Mateo, Posadas and Barrios Vasquez are sitting across the table from one another, eating pizza and watching action movies. Over the heads of the two men, painted in large colorful letters, it says “No human being is illegal on stolen land.”

“I sometimes forget how much it (DACA) helps me in comparison to other undocumented people,” said Posadas, who said he usually thinks most about his status every two years, when it is time to renew his DACA application. 

For Barrios Vasquez, immigration status has limited his options. “You’ve got to accept fate,” he said. 

Is the dream dead for undocumented students?

California has the largest population of undocumented college students, roughly 83,000 people, according to one estimate using data from the American Communities Survey. UC, Cal State and the community college system do not officially track the number of undocumented students and instead use various proxies to estimate it. They don’t track the number of DACA recipients either. 

From the time the federal government implemented DACA in 2012 until the election of Trump in 2017, the narrative around undocumented students focused on that program, said Alonso Garcia, a senior manager with the Foundation for California Community Colleges. Now, as this population dwindles and a new group of undocumented students emerges, he said community colleges are shifting their approach. 

The language is changing, too. The term “Dreamer” emerged more than two decades ago when lawmakers and advocacy organizations first introduced the DREAM Act, a federal bill to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children. That bill, and the various iterations of it that followed, failed in Congress, but helped create momentum for DACA, which targeted undocumented youth even if it only provided them with temporary relief. Now the poster children for the Dream Act and DACA — the original “Dreamers” — are in their 20s, 30s or 40s, but many politicians use the word “Dreamer” more broadly to refer to all undocumented students or youth. 

“Recently, I’ve been learning more about what it means to be a ‘Dreamer,’ and it just feels like a closed definition.”

Auner Barrios Vasquez, a student at the College of San Mateo

Barrios Vasquez said he used to identify as a “Dreamer” when he was younger, thinking that the word might carry some power and help him gain legal protection, such as DACA. “Recently, I’ve been learning more about what it means to be a ‘Dreamer,’ and it just feels like a closed definition,” he said. He prefers “undocumented.”

In 2019 state lawmakers passed the “Dreamer Resource Liaisons” bill and have since allocated more than $35 million for colleges and universities to designate places and people on campus to support undocumented youth.

Nimsi Garcia works as one of those liaisons for undocumented students at Cañada College in Redwood City, though her position is funded differently. In the San Mateo Community College District, which includes Cañada College, the College of San Mateo and Skyline College, she estimates that there are nearly 1,000 undocumented students, only “a very small fraction” of which are DACA recipients. She used to run the “Dream Center,” but this year, she said all three colleges in the district agreed to rename their spaces “Undocumented Community Centers.”

Working without authorization

Except in limited circumstances, undocumented students can’t work unless they have DACA. Last year, Barrios Vasquez had to turn down an internship as a front-end engineer at a tech startup because it required a Social Security Number. His dream internship is at Stanford — where he ultimately wants to transfer and continue studying computer science — but he assumed the internship requires work authorization too, so he never applied.

DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to becoming a U.S. citizen, but it does give Posadas work authorization, making him eligible for many campus jobs and some internships. However, as a computer engineering major, he said the top internships are at national research laboratories, and only U.S. citizens can apply. 

“I sometimes forget how much it (DACA) helps me in comparison to other undocumented people.”

Eduardo Posadas, a student at the College of San Mateo

To prioritize undocumented students and help them earn money and gain internship skills, the College of San Mateo created a fellowship program in 2021, which offers $7,500 a year in additional financial aid to anyone who volunteers roughly 10 hours a week. It’s a workaround solution for students who can’t legally work a campus job, said Paola Mora Paredes, a program services coordinator at the College of San Mateo who serves as a liaison for undocumented students.

The San Mateo program is modeled on a state initiative, known as the California Dreamer Service Incentive Grant, that launched the same year and initially provided up to $3,000 a year in financial aid for undocumented students in exchange for volunteer hours. UC and Cal State students also offer undocumented students the option to take out loans up to $4,000 a year at low interest rates. 

Some UC students want their universities to go even further by allowing undocumented students to work campus jobs, even if those students lack work permits. Scholars say such a policy could legally work. In an open letter, law professors across the country wrote that “the time is ripe” to try it: “Each year, more and more students enter undergraduate and graduate programs without DACA.”

After a tumultuous meeting earlier this month, some members of the UC Board of Regents told student leaders that they want to have a plan for undocumented students in place by January, though they said they do not speak for the rest of the board. Amy Bentley-Smith, a spokesperson for the Cal State system, said they are monitoring the process closely. Melissa Villarin, a spokesperson for the community college system, said the decision for the state’s two-year schools is “made at the local level.”

Leaving money for undocumented students unspent

Luis Romero, 35, has been a student at Cañada College for roughly seven years and although he wants to work a campus job, he can’t. Romero arrived as an undocumented immigrant in 2012, at the age of 24, and doesn’t meet the residency requirements for DACA.

“I read the (campus job) requirements and I say, ‘OK, I have what they need,’ but I can’t go,” he said. 

He relies on a volunteer fellowship, similar to the grant that Barrios Vasquez receives, as well as income working as an independent contractor, tutoring Spanish. 

Romero doesn’t receive any of the state’s financial aid either. A March report from the California Student Aid Commission found that only 14% of undocumented students receive state financial aid. Most undocumented students did not apply for state aid, and of those who applied and were eligible, just 61% ultimately received it. All undocumented students — including those with DACA — are ineligible for federal grants and loans.

The report said some students aren’t aware that they can access financial aid from the state while others are confused about what to submit. Romero doesn’t qualify yet because of residency and education requirements embedded in the law. 

Working as a busboy and gardener, he enrolled in college when he was 27 years old, just a few years after arriving in the U.S. He began attending school in order to learn English and become a waiter at the restaurant where he worked. He said that only later he realized that he wanted to pursue an associate degree. 

Stickers and flyers on a table in the Undocumented Community Center at the College of San Mateo on Nov. 28, 2023. The center offers undocumented students access to financial and legal aid as well as guidance in navigating grant applications. Photo by Amaya Edwards for CalMatters

This fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that aims to consolidate pieces of the financial aid application process for undocumented students, though the changes will not affect the legal requirements that currently disqualify Romero. To receive state aid, students must attend school in California for at least three years and receive a degree. He will only become eligible for state financial aid after finishing his associate degree, which he plans to do next year and then transfer to UC Berkeley.

Other state programs for undocumented students are also undersubscribed. In 2021, its first year, the Dreamer Service Incentive Grant program had the capacity to provide grants to as many as 2,500 students. Only 146 participated, said Shelveen Ratnam, a spokesperson from the California Student Aid Commission. Last year, the commission refashioned the program to award more money and allow more students to apply, though it’s still serving less than half of the students it could. 

The Cal State and UC campuses allocated roughly $7 million for the loan program in the 2021-22 academic year but students only used about $4.5 million, according to Bentley-Smith and Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the UC.

Preventing deportation

Any undocumented student can face deportation, but those without DACA are at higher risk. Following the Trump administration’s decision to close down DACA, the UC system sued the administration in an effort to protect its students from deportation. In 2018, state lawmakers began providing grants to the California community colleges, UC and Cal State University campuses to support legal services for immigrant students, totaling more than $72 million in the last five years. 

Alonso Garcia, with the Foundation for California Community Colleges, said the system has provided over 10,000 free legal consultations. In some cases, Garcia said, undocumented students may be eligible for visas without knowing it. 

For Barrios Vasquez, the fear of deportation is tangible. He said that once, a few months after Trump assumed office, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrived at the doorstep of his apartment complex and knocked on his door while his parents were away. He ran into the back of the house and into a closet, finishing his homework using a flashlight. 

As he spoke, Posadas listened quietly: Because of DACA, he is unlikely to get deported, but he thinks about his parents, who are also undocumented. Like Barrios Vasquez, they have no protection from deportation. 

Eduardo Posadas, 22, at the College of San Mateo on Nov. 28, 2023. Posadas studies computer engineering and is a DACA recipient. Photo by Amaya Edwards for CalMatters

In 2021, President Joe Biden tried to reinstate DACA and Barrios Vasquez quickly assembled an application. Right before an appointment to move forward with his request, a judge ruled against the program, halting any progress on his application. 

“I felt like I was once again robbed of an opportunity, but it wasn’t up to me,” he said. “At that point, what could I do?”

The judge’s decision on DACA will likely face more appeals in the coming years and may fall to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Meanwhile, Barrios Vasquez is still chasing the American Dream, he said. With the help of the Undocumented Community Center, he’s learning how to form his own business so he can work as an independent contractor once he graduates from a university. It’s an imperfect loophole that some undocumented professionals use to work in the U.S., though it has drawbacks. “It’s not steady or stable,” he said, but it’s one of the only options he has. 

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.